Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (born 15 April 1958, Birmingham, England) is a British Jamaican Rastafarian. Novelist, playwright, poet, actor, and outspoken activist Benjamin Zephaniah was born on April 15, 1958, and spent his early life growing up in both Jamaica and Birmingham, England. Though he had been writing poems his entire life, he was also dyslexic, and he quit his formal schooling as a young teenager. In 1979 Zephaniah moved to London and released his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm, the next year. In 1983 his debut album, "Rasta", was released, followed by 1984's Us an Dem, 1995's Back to Roots, and 1996's Belly of de Beast. A prolific writer, Zephaniah was also the recipient of honorary doctorates from numerous universities in England, a Writer in Residence at the University of Cambridge, and on the shortlist for the 2005 British Book Awards Decibel Writer of the Year. In 2003 he refused a nomination for the prestigious Order of the British Empire, sending a letter to the Guardian that explained his reasons for declining the award.
He is a well-known figure in contemporary English literature, and was included in "The Times" list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008.
Zephaniah was born and raised in Handsworth district of Birmingham, which he called the "Jamaican capital of Europe"- He is the son of a Barbados postman and a Jamaican nurse.
He writes that his poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls "street politics". His first performance was in church when he was ten, and by the age of fifteen, his poetry was already known among Handsworth's Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. He received a criminal record with the police as a young man and served a prison sentence for burglary. Tired of the limitations of being a black poet communicating with black people only, he decided to expand his audience, and headed to London at the age of twenty-two.
He became actively involved in a workers co-operative in Stratford, London, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, called “Pen Rhythm“, published by Page One Books in 1980. Three editions were published. Zephaniah has said that his mission is to fight the dead image of poetry in academia, and to "take [it] everywhere" to people who do not read books so he turned poetry readings into concert-like performances.
His second collection of poetry, “The Dread Affair: Collected Poems“ (1985) contained a number of poems attacking the British legal system. “Rasta Time in Palestine“ (1990), an account of a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories, contained poetry and travelogue. Many of the poems in “Too Black, Too Strong“ (2001) were inspired by his tenure as Poet in Residence at the chambers of London barrister Michael Mansfield QC and by his attendance at both the inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings and the inquiry into the death of Ricky Reel, an Asian student found dead in the Thames. “We Are Britain!“ (2002), is a collection of poems celebrating cultural diversity in Britain.
His album "Rasta", which featured The Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, gained him international prestige and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts. It was because of this recording that he was introduced to the political prisoner and soon-to-be South African president Nelson Mandela, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Zephaniah was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, and sat in on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and other cases, these experiences leading to his “Too Black, Too Strong“ poetry collection.
Benjamin Zephaniah became a very successful children's poet with his first book of poetry for children called "Talking Turkeys" which to go into an emergency reprint after just six weeks. In 1999 he wrote an immensely successful novel for teenagers, "Face", the first of four novels to date.
Zephaniah lived for many years in East London but since 2008 has divided his time between Beijing and a village near Spalding, Lincolnshire. He also lived in Indonesia for 5 years.
He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, who left him in 2001.
In November 2003, Zephaniah wrote in "The Guardian" that he had turned down an OBE from the Queen because it reminded him of "how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."
Zephaniah is an honorary patron of The Vegan Society, Viva! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals), the anti-racism Newham Monitoring Project, Tower Hamlets Summer University and an animal rights advocate. In 2004 he wrote the foreword to Keith Mann's book "From Dusk 'til Dawn: An insider's view of the growth of the Animal Liberation Movement", a book about the Animal Liberation Front. In August 2007, he announced that he would be launching the Animal Liberation Project, alongside People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He became a vegan when he read poems about "shimmering fish floating in an underwater paradise, and birds flying free in the clear blue sky".
Zephaniah has spoken in favour of a British Republic and the dis-establishment of the crown.
Zephaniah won the BBC Young Playwright's Award. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of North London (in 1998), the University of Central England (in 1999), Staffordshire University (in 2002), London South Bank University (in 2003), the University of Exeter and the University of Westminster (in 2006). On 17 July 2008 Zephaniah received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham. He was listed at 48 in The Times' list of 50 greatest postwar writers.
He has released several albums of original music. In 2006, Zephaniah released Naked, an album of his poetry performed over dub and trip-hop beats. He was awarded Best Original Song in the Hancocks 2008, Talkawhile Awards for Folk Music (as voted by members of Talkawhile.co.uk) for his version of "Tam Lyn Retold" recorded with The Imagined Village. He collected the Award live at The Cambridge Folk Festival on 2 August 2008 and described himself as a "Rasta Folkie".
Official Website: http://www.benjaminzephaniah.com/